TIME Plays the Game of Thrones, and Lives to Tell the Tale

We get ready for Sunday's season two premiere with a board game full of betrayal, intrigue and very confusing rules.

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“When you play the game of thrones,” George R.R. Martin’s adage goes, “you win or you die.” That is false. When you play the game of thrones, you won’t die. You almost certainly won’t win either. When you play the game of thrones, you will, like me, probably end up mired in a frustrating stalemate. Or, like my brother, sputtering in petulant indignation.

Yes, accompanied by a group of friends — or, should I say, bannermen — I played A Game of Thrones. It’s a board game, an extremely elaborate and complicated board game based on Martin’s best-selling novels, that was recently re-issued by its makers, Fantasy Flight Games, ahead of the April 1 debut of the second season of HBO’s hit TV series of the same name.

(READ: Winter Is Returning: Game of Thrones Season 2 Hopes and Fears)

Conveniently, the game starts off roughly where the first season of Game of Thrones ends: King Robert Baratheon is dead and the great houses of Westeros are readying themselves for a bitter war of succession. As the first season drew to a close, the armies of the North, led by Robb Stark, son of Eddard (you know, the guy played by Sean Bean, who has this happen to him, prompting reactions like this), were already engaged in battle with the scheming, wealthy Lannisters. Soon entering the fray will be the dead king’s brothers: the mirthless Stannis Baratheon — dubbed by TIME’s Lev Grossman as the “Al Gore of Westeros” — and the far more mirthful Renly, whom we see in the first season in an intimate moment with a man known widely as the Knight of Flowers. Their separate armies are camped in two fortresses that mirror their personalities: Stannis’s seat is upon the barren, rocky isle of Dragonstone while Renly is at the southern citadel of Highgarden, a lush, verdant place where he finds himself defended by an elite band of warriors known as the Rainbow Guard.

In the board game, you can helm one of these four factions and two others: that of House Greyjoy — the island-skulking, salt-water drinking, untrustworthy Vikings of Westeros — and House Martell of Dorne, the southern most land of Westeros. If you haven’t read the books, the only thing I ought to tell you about the Dornishmen is that they have by far the tastiest-sounding food in the Seven Kingdoms.

They don’t have pizza and homemade guacamole (we did) and, while noshing, my group divided up into six teams. I ended up as one of the Starks of Winterfell; the other guy on my team was an inveterate geek and board game enthusiast, but the only one in our crew not to know a thing about Game of Thrones. “What the hell is a wildling?” he asks, referring to the peoples north of the Wall who refuse to “bend the knee” to any lord of Westeros. One of the Greyjoys chimes in: “They’re like Ron Paul meets Atilla the Hun.”


So how do you play the Game of Thrones? Well, I played it for eight hours and I still barely know. The box overflows with pieces denoting knights, footmen and siegetowers; myriad decks of cards are shuffled and put face down, to be used in various scenarios of the game. A turn begins with each side simultaneously setting orders for their provinces and units, plotting raids, reinforcements, musters and invasions. You keep certain types of tokens to place on your territories so that they yield other types of tokens which you have to hoard and spend judiciously when “vying for influence.” Vying for influence wins you, among other things, a large plastic cut-out of a raven, which our resident Lannister attempted to perch on his shoulder.

Absent Varys, the kingdom’s hairless eunuch Master of Whispers and Lord of Intrigues, we stumbled along at a loss, asking each other questions like “Can I attack you here?” or “I need stars. How do I get more goddamn stars?” I should say that almost all of us stumbled along. One friend had played the game before and it became her task to both explain its rules and then just crush us. As Stannis Baratheon, she swiftly set about establishing her hegemony, taking the capital King’s Landing. (In the TV series, it is controlled by the Lannisters, who have placed Joffrey — a nasty, wandless Draco Malfoy — on the seat of Westeros’ Iron Throne.) But slowly, as in most wars, and certainly in Martin’s epic fantasy realm, the tides of battle changed.

The faction in Highgarden surged into the heart of Westeros; the Greyjoys, impetuous and greedy, went on a fool’s errand trying to seize my Stark lands in the North; House Martell of Dorne was invulnerable at the bottom of the board, and poised for conquest. The Lannisters were played by a friend, who, keeping in character as Tyrion (the wine-swilling dwarf and black sheep of the House), was considerably hungover. He belched in between issuing commands to attack the Greyjoys on the Iron Islands, and spent the rest of the game squabbling over two ocean squares on the map.

(More: Watch a New Game of Thrones Season 2 Trailer)

Technically, you win A Game of Thrones if, by the end of the game (10 turns), you possess seven castles. There are lots of little castles on the map, so you’d think this is easy. But no. By the last turn, we all had only three or four each. My brother, at that point in sole command of Renly’s forces — the self-designated Knight of Flowers, along with one of the Greyjoys, had left to go see the Hunger Games — had his well-crafted plans for domination undermined at the last moment by one duplicitous Lannister move. He proceeded to whine incessantly. The Starks were a lost cause, but, in truth, never had designs on all of Westeros anyway. We are men of honor. And the girl playing Stannis Baratheon, of course, executed one last sneaky attack, seizing a Dornish castle before the game ended. Though no one was vanquished, she had the most castles. To win the Game of Thrones, it should be said, you need to have played the Game of Thrones.

Ishaan Tharoor writes for TIME and is editor of TIME’s international affairs blog, Global Spin. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and @TIMEWorld.